Romney's Neocon Foreign Policy: Written by Those Who Ignored al Qaeda Threat
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While the team of al-Qaeda terrorists made final preparations for their attack, the U.S. press corps also missed the drama playing out inside the U.S. intelligence agencies. The hot stories that steamy summer were shark attacks and the mystery of a missing Capitol Hill intern Chandra Levy, who’d had an affair with Rep. Gary Condit, a California Democrat.
The news media pretended that its obsession with Levy’s disappearance was a heartfelt concern to help her parents find their missing daughter; the sexual gossip about Levy and Condit proved to be just a fortuitous byproduct. Yet, as cable news played the Chandra Levy case 24/7, a far more significant life-or-death drama was playing out inside the FBI and CIA.
At the FBI’s Phoenix field office, FBI agent Kenneth Williams noted the curious fact that suspected followers of bin Laden were learning to fly airplanes at schools inside the United States.
Citing “an inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” attending American flight schools, Williams sent a July 10, 2001, memo to FBI headquarters warning of the “possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama Bin Laden” to send student pilots to the United States. But the memo produced no follow-up.
CIA officials encountered similar foot-dragging at the White House. At least two officials in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center were so apoplectic about the blasé reactions from the Bush administration that they considered resigning and going public with their concerns. Instead, the CIA hierarchy made one more stab at startling Bush into action.
So, on Aug. 6, 2001, the CIA dispatched senior analysts to brief Bush who was starting a month-long vacation at his Crawford ranch. They carried a highly classified report with the blunt title “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” This PDB summarized the history of bin Laden’s interest in launching attacks inside the United States and ended with a carefully phrased warning about recent intelligence threat data:
“FBI information … indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York. The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.”
Bush was not pleased by the CIA’s intrusion on his vacation nor with the report’s lack of specific targets and dates. He glared at the CIA briefer and snapped, “All right, you’ve covered your ass,” according to an account in author Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which relied heavily on senior CIA officials.
Putting the CIA’s warning in the back of his mind and ordering no special response, Bush returned to a vacation of fishing, clearing brush and working on a speech about stem-cell research.
Yet, inside the FBI as the month wore on, there were more warnings that went unheeded. FBI agents in Minneapolis arrested Zacarias Moussaoui in August because of his suspicious behavior in trying to learn to fly commercial jetliners when he lacked even rudimentary skills.
FBI agent Harry Samit, who interrogated Moussaoui, sent 70 warnings to his superiors about suspicions that the al-Qaeda operative had been taking flight training in Minnesota because he was planning to hijack a plane for a terrorist operation.
But FBI officials in Washington showed “criminal negligence” in blocking requests for a search warrant on Moussaoui’s computer or taking other preventive action, Samit testified more than four years later at Moussaoui’s criminal trial.